Will the Kings Make the Playoffs?

Posted: 02/16/2015 by levcohen in Hockey

When people talk about “conference imbalance,” they are usually referring to the NBA, where the Western Conference is far superior to the Eastern Conference. Coincidentally, though (I think it’s a coincidence, anyway), the imbalance is almost as strong in hockey. All of the past three Stanley Cup winners (and six of eight) have come from the Western Conference, signifying that the era of Montreal and (now that they are in the Eastern Conference) Detroit dominating is long over. The new powers of hockey are Chicago and LA, and most of the other exciting teams play out west, too. So the west is the more skilled and faster conference and has the top three teams by goal differential in the NHL (all residing in the brutal Central division). You know what else the conference has going for it? A playoff race that could come down to the wire.

In the Eastern Conference, the eight playoff spots have pretty much already been decided. Montreal, Tampa Bay, Detroit, the Islanders, Pittsburgh, the Rangers, and Washington all have at least 10 point playoff cushions and clearly have been the seven best teams in the conference this year. Meanwhile, the #8 Bruins have looked surprisingly shaky and are just three points up on #9 Florida (and five up on #10 Philadelphia), but does anyone really expect the experienced Bruins, who have more playoff experience than any other team in the conference, to slip up? If anything, I actually think they could go on a nice win streak and propel themselves back into the first round home-ice advantage conversation. Anyway, unless the Bruins are a lot worse than we think they are, the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams have been decided. All that’s left to talk about is where each team will be seeded and what the ideal matchups would be. And with just four points separating the top three teams in the Atlantic and five separating the top four in the Metropolitan, that race should stay pretty close throughout. In the end, though, it’s not as fun when the only thing that has yet to be determined is seeding.

Meanwhile, the defending champs are currently not occupying a playoff spot. You read that right: the Kings, the next dynasty in the NHL after winning two of three championships at a relatively young age, would not make the playoffs if they started today. Will they make a run and make up the three points (while also leapfrogging red-hot Minnesota) that separates them from the playoffs or will the Kings be watching from home come playoff time?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Kings. In fact, the advanced stats point to a team that’s been really unlucky and with better luck would have one of the best records in the NHL. Their 5 on 5 Corsi, which counts all shot attempts when both teams are at full strength, including shots that miss the net or are blocked, is 55%. That means they’ve averaged 55% of all shots in games they’ve played, which is tops in the NHL. The rest of the top five? Chicago, Tampa Bay, Detroit, and the Islanders. Put aside the fact that three are from the Eastern Conference (#6 and #7 are Western Conference teams) and the biggest takeaway from that is that all four have at least 72 points. The Kings have 62. They also measure up pretty well in terms of goals in 5 on 5 hockey. They’re scoring 53.9% of all 5 on 5 goals in games they’ve played in, which places them seventh behind only six 70+ point teams (and ahead of five others). Amazingly, Nashville, which leads the NHL with 82 points, is scoring 60.2% of goals in 5 on 5 hockey. That’s irrelevant in the Kings conversation but also incredible.

So the Kings are really good in 5 on 5 hockey. Why, then, are they 25-30 when combining regulation and overtime losses? Well, their 12 overtime/shootout losses don’t help, and neither does the 1-7 record in shootouts, which comes after a year in which the Kings were 8-6 in shootouts and had just eight OT/SO losses. If the Kings had gotten four or five more points out of their overtime and shootout games, which seems entirely plausible, they would vault over Vancouver and Calgary into third in the Pacific division. But they’d still be lagging behind the elite teams, which doesn’t make sense given their Corsi. What else is to blame?

Well, their power play has been slightly above average, but their penalty kill has been pretty bad. The Kings are killing just 78.2% of power plays, sixth worst in the NHL. They are allowing 7.89 goals per 60 minutes on the penalty kill, which is fourth worst in the NHL and miles worse than rival Chicago, who are killing an NHL-high 87.9% of penalties and allowing just 4.69 goals per 60 minutes on the penalty kill. Still, the PK discrepancy can’t explain the whole difference between the Kings and the NHL’s elite, especially since the Islanders, one of the league’s best teams, are last in penalty kill. Besides, the Kings are in the top 10 in fewest times short-handed, which means the PK isn’t as big of an issue as it might be if they were, say, the Winnipeg Jets, who have been short-handed 41 more times than any other team.

The Darryl Sutter-led Kings have always been much better in the playoffs than they were in the regular season. They famously won it all in 2011-12 as the #8 seed and finished sixth in the conference last year. That, along with their great metrics, means they’ll still be a force to be reckoned with if they make the playoffs. You can be sure that the Ducks, Blackhawks, and Predators are hoping that Calgary makes the playoffs instead of the Kings.

So we know that the Kings are a good team who have gotten really unlucky this season. And their four consecutive wins also lead me to believe that they’ll make the playoffs. It’s no sure thing, though. 16 of their final 27 games are on the road, which is especially painful considering their are 18-6-6 at home and just 7-12-6 on the road. And even if one of Calgary, Winnipeg, or Vancouver has a cold streak, Minnesota, who currently have 63 points, one more than the Kings, is also a threat. The Wild, who lost 12 of 14 at one point this season, are 10-1-2 in their last 13 games and are finally getting consistent play out of a goalie (Devan Dubnyk is 10-1-1 since being acquired in a deal with Arizona).

I think the Kings will make the playoffs, but the final 20-odd games of the season are going to be really interesting. My best bet: LA and Minnesota both stay hot while both Calgary and Vancouver struggle and miss the playoffs.

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